After several years of European attempt to locate the three South Caucasian countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, within a common framework, policies of these neighbouring states have become more distant to each other. Currently, the strategic region on the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, finds itself in a situation where Official Tbilisi, after signing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) as part of the Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, is closely aligned with Western structures and European policies; Armenia, after being pressured by Moscow to abandon plans for concluding similar agreements, has become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). And Azerbaijan, denouncing both the EU and the EEU, remains also outside the World Trade Organization (WTO), seeking strategic partnerships on equal footage. Despite the fragmented nature of the region, all three states have been closely monitoring developments occurring 15-16 July in Turkey. The coup had failed, but the consequences of the attempt could be far reaching not only for Turkey, but also for South Caucasus.
In the long-run, repercussions of the failed coup could go either way. In the short-run, however, two immediate implications shape views in the neighbouring region. First is Erdogan’s crackdown on coup plotters and his attempt to purge all Gülen elements. Fethullah Gülen, Turkish Islamic theologian and preacher, who lives in Pennsylvania, USA, has been widely perceived as an organizer of the coup. Previously he was charged with establishing a parallel state structure within the Turkish judiciary, the police, and the military. Gülen owns a network of private schools, numbering around 1600 worldwide, and his official web-site http://fgulen.com/en/ operates in multiple languages. He is also a leader of the Gülen movement, otherwise referred to as ‘Hizmet’, which is currently recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey. In the wake of the July events, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a Presidential decree to close down more than 1,000 private schools and more than 1,000 associations as well as foundations for their suspected involvement with the Gülen movement. Around 50,000 soldiers, army generals, police, judges, civil servants and teachers have reportedly been suspended or detained since the coup attempt. Turkish police have also raided 44 companies. Now, Gülen’s footprints are traced not only in Turkey, but also in the wider region.
As Washington remains cautious about Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt, anti-American sentiments in Turkey are rising.
Erdogan has also been angered by the fact that instead of showing unconditional support to his government, the EU seemed to criticize his post-coup actions. Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations said that the arrests right after the failed coup indicated that the Turkish government had prepared the list beforehand. EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, in her statement noted that mass arrests in Turkey were ‘unacceptable decisions on the education system, judiciary and the media’. Referring to Erdogan’s rhetoric on reinstating death penalty, which was abolished in 2004 to launch Turkish EU accession talks, she also stressed that no such country could become a member of the Union.
In the light of Western reactions, Putin swiftly found an opportunity to reach out to Erdogan. Following his supportive phone call, a large Turkish delegation, led by the Turkish President himself, rushed to Russia. Erdogan personally tried to mend relations with the Kremlin, which worsened after the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet in the near vicinity of the Turkish-Syrian border, in November last year. During the common press conference in St. Petersburg, the two leaders announced that they aimed to return to the pre-conflict level of cooperation.
A view from Azerbaijan: Erdogan’s Turkey!
Erdogan’s Turkey is crucial for Azerbaijan. From Baku’s perspective, a strong Erdogan equals a strong Aliyev. Therefore, it is of no surprise that ‘President Ilham Aliyev was following the developments in Turkey throughout the night with anxiety and was deeply concerned about these events’. Under Erdogan’s rule, relations between the two states have reached excellent levels in almost all areas. This is translated into agreements, such as the “Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance’, as well as the agreement ‘confirming the protocols on the transfer of buildings and structures in the military cantonment Gyzyl Shryag and the terminal at the military airfield in Zainalabdin Tagiyev to the use of the armed forces of the Turkish republic’. Collaboration between the two saw the conclusion of massive strategic projects, such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Crude Oil Pipeline (BTC), Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum Natural Gas Pipeline (BTE), Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway Project (BTK), and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). With such collaborations, Turkey and Azerbaijan have become strongly linked with energy and transport policies. In Azerbaijan, Turkish contracting firms have successfully completed projects worth a total of 11 billion USD and only last year bilateral trade volume between the two countries exceeded 3.5 billion USD. Needless to say, Erdogan’s Turkey is a key ally for Azerbaijan in contrast with Armenia.
Therefore, Erdogan’s victory is much more important for the Azeri government, than the purges in the country. Baku did not seem concerned about Turkish demand to cut all relations with Erdogan’s personal enemy, either. By 2013, when the Erdogan – Gülen dispute erupted over a corruption scandal in the Turkish government, 12 Gülen high schools and 13 courses were spread throughout the country. Qavqaz University, which was launched in 1993, and which later became known as a corruption – free institution, was also affiliated with the Turkish Islamic cleric. When Erdogan’s fight against Hizmet intensified and extended to Gülen’s activities in Azerbaijan, Baku received a list of Gülen supporters from the Turkish government. Meeting Erdogan’s demands, during the same year the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) took over control of Gülen -linked schools, while Khazar TV and prep courses became controlled by the government representatives. Several state officials were also dismissed for alleged links to Gülen’s movement. In July, as Erdogan’s struggles renewed, SOCAR took over the Qavqaz University as well, dismissing its rector. Additionally, Azerbaijan suspended ANS TV’s license for its intentions to broadcast an interview with Fetullah Gülen. And, Azerbaijani citizens, Israyilov Shahin Israyil, Ahmadli Fuad Zafar, Musayev Etibar Imamgulu and Gasimov Vugar Shamistan, working for mobile communication companies, have been charged with supporting Gülen, and were sentenced to imprisonment for abusing official powers.
When it comes to Russian-Turkish relations, Baku seems to be pleased by the post-coup developments. Last year, when relations strained between Putin and Erdogan, Azerbaijan decided to stay out of the dispute, in order to maintain good relations with both partners. Even though Official Ankara is Baku’s major ally, Russia has a strategic importance for the country. On the one hand, Kremlin’s military guarantees Armenian security, while on the other hand supplies Baku with arms, estimated to be as much as 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s total supply. Russia remains its major trade partner and thousands of Azeri people continue to live in the Russian Federation. With oil prices going down, for Azerbaijan’s energy-export economy ties both with Turkey and Russia are important. Therefore, it was Azerbaijan who made efforts to facilitate relations between the two governments. And the two Presidents seem to be rewarding Baku for its efforts. During his speech at the press conference in St. Petersburg, Erdogan announced the creation of the trilateral set-up of Russia-Turkey-Azerbaijan cooperation, underlining the importance of the format. From the Russian-Turkish reconciliation, Azerbaijan’s government seems to expect positive outcomes within conflict negotiations by further engaging Turkey in the talks, as well as the benefits seen from partnering on strategic projects.
A view from Armenia: Erdogan – terrible, Turkish military – far worse!
Turkey is Armenia’s long-time foe over the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman rule in 1915-1916, which Armenia recognizes as a ‘genocide’ and Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies the word as an accurate term. Turkish-Armenian relations have worsened in 1993 over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and until now, attempts to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries have failed. Armenia’s two borders, one with Azerbaijan and another with Turkey remain closed, the latter monitored by the Russian guards stationed in Armenia. Official Yerevan also finds itself in a situation, where Armenia remains outside almost all strategic regional projects in the Caucasus and does not even have a border with the Russian-led economic block, in which it is currently located. Concerning the coup attempt in Turkey, Yerevan has been less outspoken. Partly because it coincided with the political unrest, which developed in Armenia after an armed group stormed a police station and took hostages. It was, however, reported that the government ‘attentively’ followed the situation in Turkey.
Gülen’s footprints in Armenia can be hardly found. Nevertheless, Turkish media has made efforts to link the Islamic cleric to the neighbouring state. In 2014, Gülen was accused of supporting the Armenian genocide bill in the USA. Pro-government Daily Sabah Turkey wrote that the Gülen Movement has made donations to Robert Menendez, a U.S. Senator known for his efforts for the United States’ official recognition of the genocide. In 2015, another Turkish media source Yeni Şafak claimed that Gülen recognized Armenian genocide. In the aftermath of the failed coup, as hateful rhetoric around Erdogan’s major rival had spread in the country, Al-Monitor published an article titled ‘Is Gülen an Armenian?’, citing various Turkish figures and columnists about Gülen’s alleged Armenian origins. Discussing Gülen in such context could cause rising public sentiments against Erdogan’s government in Armenia. For now, the few Armenian commentators, who wrote about the Turkish coup attempt, showed mixed feelings, but they seem to emphasize that while Erdogan is terrible, Turkish military could have been far worse.
For Armenia, in the wake of the failed coup, what is most important is the new dynamics within the Russian-Turkish relations. Armenian security is underpinned by bilateral agreements with Russia, which postulate the continual deployment of a major Russian military contingent, including the military base in Gyumri and the airbase near Yerevan. Russian support to Armenia counter-balances the Turkish-Azeri alliance. When Russian-Turkish relations strained, Official Yerevan was the one best positioned to benefit from it. In fact, some in the country argued that after worsening relations between the two regional powers, it was time for the Armenian government to demand Putin’s recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, similar to Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. As Armenia rejected signing the AA and the DCFTA with the EU, instead choosing to join the EEU in 2015, Armenian government was also believed to be positioned well to potentially influence Putin to reconsider selling arms to Baku. Now, when Putin and Erdogan seem to be recovering their relations, along with launching a trilateral format of cooperation with Azerbaijan, Yerevan’s interests might be at stake.
A view from Georgia: pro-Western Turkey!
Georgia, practically the only remaining torch of western democracy in South Caucasus and the wider region, has been mostly concerned with its own security on the night of the attempted coup in Turkey. At 3 AM local time, Georgian President had convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council and promptly declared support to the democratically elected government in the neighbouring country. Turkey is Georgia’s strategic partner: Official Ankara ranks as the biggest trade partner of Georgia with a bilateral trade volume of 1,4 billion USD. Turkish FDI in Georgia has been second biggest in the first quarter of 2016 making around 376.4 million US dollars. Official Tbilisi is the key partner for Ankara and Baku in almost all strategic projects in the region. And, Turkish and Georgian citizens are able to travel passport free, with their national identity documents.
Georgia’s Prime Minister held his official visit to Turkey two days after the failed coup. During his meeting with President Erdogan the issue of Gülen-linked schools and affiliated establishments in Georgia was also discussed. Such private schools in Georgia are spread throughout the country, including the Capital, Rustavi & Marneuli (Eastern Georgia), Kutaisi and Batumi (Western Georgia). Georgia’s Black Sea University is also affiliated with Gülen’s name. Yasin Temizkan, a Turkish diplomat, on July 16 prior to the high-level meeting, in an interview said that followers of the Gülen movement were strengthening their positions in educational institutions, ‘raising generations serving not the state, but this terrorist group’. He added that ‘regrettably there are schools of this group in Georgia” too. Two days later, Turkey’s Ambassador to Georgia claimed that the consul’s remarks were “misrepresented” by media. So far, Georgian authorities have pushed back, asserting that there was no evidence that would prove such allegations about these schools. Yet, as Erdogan’s demands are intensifying, Official Tbilisi will find itself in an uneasy situation. On the one hand, it will have to uphold democratic standards in the country and secure relations with the West, and on the other – acknowledge the strategic partnership with Erdogan’s Turkey.
More concerning for Georgia is the potential spread of instability in the neighbouring state. Tbilisi fears that if Turkey is involved in internal struggles, it could provide pretext for Russian military manoeuvres in the Caucasus. In fact, Russian defence minister on 16 July caused concern when he said that there was a possibility of a Syria-like crises to occur in any country, including the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The same day, to avoid any complications and citing security reasons, Official Tbilisi decided to temporarily impose restrictions on its western border and suspend flights to Turkey. Georgia also tightened control of its other borders. Turkey has supported Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, denying Russian calls to recognize its breakaway regions as independent. Being a NATO member, Turkey also remains Georgia’s strategic partner in order to counterbalance Russia. Yet, Georgia needs a pro-Western Turkey: if Russian-Turkish rapprochement translates into Official Ankara’s rivalry with the West, Georgia will find itself further cornered in the region.
What does Turkish future hold for South Caucasus?
Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policies in the post-coup period will continue to affect the South Caucasus. Internally, if democracy in Turkey enters a crisis, western democracy in the Caucasus will also be threatened. Certainly, in Azerbaijan this is underway with the planned constitutional amendments, envisaged to strengthen presidential powers, to be put to referendum on 26 September. Considering the current security environment in the wider region and judging from the perspectives of the three Caucasian states, it should be noted, however, that while democracy in Turkey is important, stability in Turkey is crucial. Externally, the fact is, Putin and Erdogan have long stood on opposing sides in major security crises: both in Ukraine and Syria. Such opposing positions can hardly reconcile overnight. Russian-Turkish interests could certainly coincide in certain fields, such as energy and trade. Post-coup Turkish activities in Syria also show certain cohabitation between Russian and Turkish Syrian policies. Yet, whether Putin and Erdogan can really ally their interests in strategic areas, whether Turkish tactical moves really translate into Russian-Turkish alliance against the West, and how such developments will affect South Caucasus, remains yet to be seen.